Coaching Conundrum: How Do We Get Kids to Listen!

This coaching question came my way…

I have a few kids on my 10u soccer team who do not pay attention when I am giving out instructions or teaching them something. How do I motivate them without sending them for laps or other discouraging things like that? I remember having to run laps when I was a kid and it always seem like I was being punished and started to turn me away from the sport. Is there a better way to motivate my players?

I feel strongly about the issue of using exercise as a consequence or punishment, so I wanted to share my response to this coach. Perhaps some of you have other creative suggestions?

IMG_2754Dear Coach,

First, thank you for not sending them for laps! There is no place in youth sports for exercise as punishment. We want kids to associate exercise and physical activity with healthy play and fun. Making it punitive definitely sends the wrong message, and may leave a lifelong bad aftertaste, as you have observed.

Your dilemma, player inattention, is a problem all coaches of young children face at one time or another. Children get antsy if they have to hold still for long, especially these days. They come to the field to blow off steam and run around. Being “forced” to stop and listen is hard for them, but we do want them to learn the game and need them to tune into instructions.

In my experience, girls tend to be more open to verbal instructions than boys, but both want their coaches to get to the point. We, as coaches, need to monitor ourselves and avoid lecturing. The best coaches in the game teach with a few quick words, delivered to specific players at the right time.

Coaches do their part by keeping instructions short and to the point. Coaching educators advise: No laps. No lines. No lectures. If you tend to be long-winded (or you’re not sure), have an assistant video-tape a session for you to self-assess. Effective coaches keep practice lively and verbal instruction to a minimum.

Here are some approaches I have seen hold kids’ attention:

  • Use questions to engage the kids in your instruction. “Do you think that will work?” “How would you do this?”
  • Vary your verbal delivery in volume and voice. Nothing speaks fun like a British accent or a cartoon character. Discover your inner kid.
  • Be organized and clear in what you want to communicate. Know what you want to say and say it. I remind myself to “speak in staccato.” Hit your note and get off of it.
  • Timing is key. Start with a mini warm-up scrimmage, and instruct afterwards. Kids listen better if they’re a bit pooped and have come in for a water break.
  • Catch them being good. Praise skills and behavior your want to encourage. Start your talk with “good things” from last game and you’ll have them hooked. I used “positive charting” from the Positive Coaching Alliance and had a ready-made list of praise to begin practice.
  • Diagram in miniature-motion. I called this “doll house soccer” with my girls teams. Have the players themselves be your “dry erase board.” In a small space, move the ball between players as you describe what you want to teach.

One caution: beware of giving extra attention to the kids who are acting out. All attention, positive or negative, is rewarding. Time given to misbehavior is time taken away from those doing what they’re supposed to. If you reward what you want to see, you’re likely to get more of it from all your players. Be sure to acknowledge positive progress with the players who struggle to pay attention to help them succeed.

Good luck and good coaching to you!

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